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posted: 4/21/2012 8:00 AM

Consensus still elusive for Route 53 panel

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  • If Route 53 is extended into Lake County, who will pay for it?

      If Route 53 is extended into Lake County, who will pay for it?
    File photo by Gilbert R. Boucher II/gboucher@daily

 
 

There are still roadblocks for a group expected to find the perfect plan for extending Route 53 north into Lake County.

Environmentalists fear the design will destroy rare species and plants while the construction industry has qualms about lower speeds intended to protect natural areas.

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Illinois Route 53/120 Blue Ribbon Advisory Council members struggled at a meeting Friday to find the consensus that Illinois tollway leaders say is essential before the agency undertakes building the road. The council is expected to vote on recommendations to the tollway board in May.

The draft plan calls for a four-lane tolled parkway on Route 53 to Route 120 with speeds of 45 mph. There's also a proposal to improve Route 120 east to the Tri-State Tollway and west to Route 12. Tolls could cost about 20 cents a mile.

Openlands CEO Gerald Adelmann noted 260 acres will be directly impacted by construction and up to 50,000 acres will be indirectly impacted. These include 40 endangered species such as orchids and birds, 13 nature preserves and significant wetlands like Almond Marsh.

"There are crown jewels here," Adelmann said. "At this stage, Openlands cannot support (the road)."

Meanwhile, Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association officials contended that 45 mph doesn't provide that much traffic relief. "There are lots of concerns from the design standpoint ... but half a loaf is better than none," President Michael Sturino said.

And engineers from the Illinois Department of Transportation worried about bottlenecks created when drivers transition from the revamped portions of Route 120 to the unimproved section.

Also, there are some vastly different financial forecasts.

Tollway planners have estimated the project could cost up to $2.5 billion. With loan payments, that leaves a shortfall of between $1.7 billion and $2 billion.

But council members offered another scenario Friday lowering the project cost to $1.3 billion by eliminating improvements to Route 120 east of Almond Marsh and expediting construction, among other things. That could lower the gap to around $200 million.

To make up the shortfall, options include tolling the existing part of Route 53 between I-90 and Lake Cook Road, charging Lake County residents gas or sales taxes, or creating special taxing districts to take advantage of the extra money generated from economic development the road is expected to jump-start.

There's also the possibility of increasing the Waukegan toll, adding a toll at the Wisconsin border and charging higher rush hour prices on the extension.

Whether to extend Route 53 north into Lake County has been a thorny issue for years. Most residents agree local traffic is a huge issue, particularly given that the terminus of Route 53 at Lake-Cook Road spills cars out onto area roads. And many think extending the road will be a boon for the economy.

But there are also concerns about flooding, land acquisition and what happens to communities the new road divides, as well as the environmental issues.

In 2009, however, a majority of voters agreed to expand Route 53 in a referendum.

Hainesville Mayor Linda Soto said after looking at a pile of foreclosure notices she was worried about other "endangered species ... middle-income families, employers and jobs."

"All of Lake County is crumbling. It's becoming a land of the wealthy and the very poor. There have to be trade-offs here," she said.

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